WASHINGTON • US President Donald Trump is escalating tensions with state and local authorities by seeking to deploy more federal agents to cities gripped by protests and spikes in crime, a policy that appeals to his Republican base ahead of the November election but faces legal challenges.
With military-clad agents already sweeping through the streets of Portland in Oregon, more units were poised to head to Chicago, and Mr Trump suggested he would do the same for New York, Philadelphia, Detroit and other urban centres controlled by Democrats.
Governors and other officials reacted angrily to the President’s moves, calling it a election-year ploy as they squared off over crime, civil liberties and local control that has spread from Portland to cities across the country.
The local officials have compared his actions to authoritarianism and vowed to pursue legislation or lawsuits to stop him.
Trailing badly in the polls with just over 100 days until the Nov 3 election, Mr Trump assailed the “liberal Democrats” running American cities and tied the issue to his presumptive opponent, former vice-president Joe Biden.
“I’m going to do something – that, I can tell you,” Mr Trump told reporters in the Oval Office on Monday. “Because we’re not going to let New York and Chicago and Philadelphia and Detroit and Baltimore and all of these – Oakland is a mess. We’re not going to let this happen in our country. All run by liberal Democrats.”
He portrayed the nation’s cities as out of control. “Look at what’s going on – all run by Democrats, all run by very liberal Democrats. All run, really, by radical left,” Mr Trump said. He added: “If Biden got in, that would be true for the country. The whole country would go to hell. And we’re not going to let it go to hell.”
Democrats said the President was the one who was out of control.
Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon said he would introduce legislation to limit the role of federal agents in cities like Portland. “This isn’t just an Oregon crisis,” he said. “It’s an American crisis. We need to stop Trump before this spreads.”
Clad in camouflage, federal agents in Portland have snatched protesters off the streets and thrown them into unmarked vehicles without explaining why they were being detained or arrested, according to some of those who have been seized.
Oregon Governor Kate Brown has called it “a blatant abuse of power”, and Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler called it “an attack on our democracy”. And the state’s attorney-general has filed a lawsuit seeking a restraining order against the federal agents for what she called unlawful tactics.
The Trump administration now plans to deploy about 150 Homeland Security Investigations special agents to Chicago, Illinois, in the coming days, according to an official directly involved in the operations. The special agents are expected to be in the city for at least 60 days to help combat violence and would be under the direction of the Justice Department.
Some cities have seen higher levels of crime since the protests over Mr George Floyd’s death while in police custody in Minneapolis, but no president in modern times has threatened to send in federal law enforcement over local opposition.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot of Chicago made clear on Monday that the federal agents would be no more welcome in her city than they have been in Portland.
“We don’t need federal agents without any insignia taking people off the street and holding them, I think, unlawfully,” she said at a morning news conference.
The Department of Homeland Security asserted that it was acting within the law, with Mr Chad Wolf, the department’s acting secretary, making clear that he had no intention to pull back.
“I don’t need invitations by the state, state mayors, or state governors to do our job,” Mr Wolf said on Fox News. “We’re going to do that, whether they like us there or not.”